WITH the death toll rising and healthcare facilities strained, Malaysians are bracing for yet another lengthy battle against Covid-19. This time, however, we are facing bigger hurdles with pandemic fatigue, increasing sporadic cases and new and potentially more malicious variants of the coronavirus.
With the changing circumstances and nature of the pandemic, a new strategy is required. Following are five recommendations:
1. Intensify evidence-based policy interventions. Evidence-based policymaking depends on reliable data. In addition to healthcare and demographic data, behavioural data of the population should be collected. Behavioural data is especially important considering the challenges faced by the authorities in ensuring compliance with standard operating procedures. With behavioural data, appropriate behavioural interventions can be introduced, as outlined in the second recommendation.
Consolidated data should be regularly analysed by a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals, economists and behavioural insights practitioners.
2. Employ behaviourally-informed interventions. Compliance with SOP and other forms of government interventions depends very much on the behaviours of the population. While enforcement seems a logical approach to ensure compliance, it is resource-intensive, costly and often ineffective. This is evident from the frequent incidents of SOP non-compliance as reported in the media.
It is essential that any intervention introduced consider the wide-ranging behaviours of the entire population. Behavioural data of different groups can be collected through surveys, interviews and various other methods, most of which can be conducted online. Based on the data gathered, customised and targeted interventions can be developed for different groups of population according to age, economic sector, local conditions and etc.
3. Identify gaps in SOP and make SOP easier for compliance, particularly for those that apply to hot spot or high-risk areas. For example, aisles in many grocery, sundry and mom-and-pop stores are typically less than 1m wide, making it impossible for customers to practise physical distancing even when shop owners limit the number entering their premises. As it is impractical for shop owners to monitor the movement of customers, the authorities should develop practical guidelines to ensure compliance with physical distancing after getting input from relevant stakeholders.
SOP and public awareness messages should be made more salient and delivered in a simple language with visual aids, such as posters, infographics or videos. Use of different languages, even local dialects, should be considered according to the needs of each target group.
4. Eliminate information overload. A lot of information is being fed to the public daily through the official channel. This situation leads to information overload and confusion among the public. There is a need to manage information and improve communication to the public.
The official National Security Council Telegram channel should be used to share essential nationwide information only. Other details can be published in a separate portal with appropriate links provided in the channel for those who need additional information.
State-level official social media channels should also be created to disseminate messages specific to the state population only.
5. Initiate partnerships based on whole-of-society approach. Considering that the pandemic concerns the whole population and involves multiple stakeholders at federal, state, local and community levels, the government should initiate and expand partnerships based on a whole-of-society approach. Active participation of key stakeholders should be facilitated in the decision-making process. Proactive mitigation measures should be implemented in partnership with the private sector and NGOs based on the available resources and expertise.
Combined with the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme, hopefully Malaysia will get out of the pandemic sooner.
MOHAMMAD ABDUL HAMID
Public Policy Consultant and NGO activist